Tuesday, 7 May 2013

A Cautionary Tale

Plenty of football revolves around “the banter”. Liverpool Everton, Spurs Arsenal, United City, Albion Wolves, it’s all about a bit of one upmanship and what, we are forced these days, to refer to as bragging rights. In the midlands at the moment, there is plenty of opportunity to invoke said rights if you are an Albion fan given the cataclysmic demise of Wolverhampton Wanderers, a story that has unravelled since the day, just 15 months ago, that the Throstles went to Molineux and came away with a 5-1 win that could have been ten.

In the wake of that, Wolves have gone into what amounts to a nervous breakdown. There are those who now argue that Mick McCarthy should never have been sacked in the wake of that defeat but anybody who was at Molineux on that day, who encountered the febrile atmosphere, the witch hunt there was for McCarthy that day, will know only too well that the idea that he could be leading the team in Wolverhampton a fortnight later is the stuff of fantasy. After a result, and a performance of that nature, he had to go.

Wolves’ problem was that they seemed to have no succession plan in place which appears laughable now given that it was obvious to anyone that McCarthy’s time was running out. Loyalty is a highly laudable thing, and there was great support for McCarthy within the corridors of power at Wolves, but in truth, his time had come months before. Having survived by the skin of their teeth the previous season, that was the time to remove McCarthy, a manager highly adept at getting teams promoted but largely unable to take them onto another level beyond that. Having earned them a third straight Premiership season, if Wolves had truly wanted to progress, the time to move him on was the summer of 2011. They did not and from there, all bets were off.

Just as extraordinary was the decision to build a new stand. Presumably, Wolves felt they were now settled and established in the top flight and in need of more seats, a conclusion that makes the decision to persevere with McCarthy all the stranger. As past experience shows – especially from the original redevelopment of Molineux – you cannot improve your stadium without first improving your team. Wolves failed to heed the lessons of history and are paying the price as a result.

All of the 2011/12 campaign was a long fight against relegation, as it was always destined to be under McCarthy. Only too late did they jettison him, under duress, and then they compounded the error in finding a successor. A deal was done with Steve Bruce, only for the board to lose their nerve once the message boards suggested the fans didn’t want him, thinking they could get a “bigger name”. Compare and contrast, as they used to say on exam papers, the differing fortunes of Wolves and Bruce last weekend.

They then dithered about before announcing that their number one choice had been Terry Connor all along. Firstly, he clearly wasn’t, which meant that from day one, he was undermined. Secondly, he was McCarthy’s assistant. Clearly they had concluded that the McCarthy era had run its course and, if so, clearly his staff were also a part of the problem. It wasn’t as if McCarthy had gone on to bigger and better things and they were looking for continuity in his wake. They were needing a fresh start, so why not have one?

Once Connor had completed McCarthy’s work and taken Wolves down with a whimper, the club finally decided on a change of course and to bring that freshness, appointed Stale Solbakken. The Norwegian was charged with bringing a more progressive style to a team schooled in the more rudimentary approach of McCarthy and after promising early signs when a push for the top six looked possible, things took a turn for the worse. Defeat at Luton in the FA Cup was the last straw and in January, after just seven months at the helm, he was removed, that experiment seemingly over.

In came Dean Saunders, rippling with Doncaster pedigree, his way with a one liner supposedly just the charm that was needed to lift the pessimistic gloom that hung like a pall over Molineux. That went well didn’t it? And now, Saunders is in the dole queue with his P45 in his hand and Wolves look to find a manager to take them out of League One. All over the Black Country, barely suppressed laughter can be heard tumbling from blue and white mouths.

But football lives on fine margins. That day at Molineux, 12th February 2012. Going into the game, Albion had taken four points from six games and had 26 points from 24 games. Wolves had just won at QPR, had 21 points from 24 games and were out of the bottom three. Albion murdered Wolves through the first half, but a last ditch Fletcher goal saw the sides in at 1-1. Albion’s domination continued in the second period, but the game remained tight. At 2-1 to the visitors, Foster produced a phenomenal save then, from a corner, Wolves looked to have equalised, only for Mulumbu to rise and head the ball off the line. From there, Wolves collapsed, lost 5-1 and nervous collapse followed.

Just imagine Mulumbu was two inches shorter. The ball goes in, it’s 2-2, Albion deflated, Wolves suddenly ascendant. They win the game, get a rush of confidence from it and string some points together. Albion, on the other hand, are crushed and go into decline, ending in relegation. Roy Hodgson not only doesn’t get the England job, but he leaves at season’s end with his contract at an end, leaving Albion to find a new boss to try and restore them to the Premier League. Meanwhile, a feelgood factor surrounds Molineux, season ticket sales go through the roof, the new stand is full, McCarthy leaves, they appoint a progressive manager like Steve Clarke, and suddenly they are pushing for Europe. Seems ludicrous now, but the skin on Mulumbu’s head – there’s a name for a fanzine if ever there was one – might just have been the difference between one future and another.

Back to the present, and just hold on a minute. Decline – like success – very rarely lasts forever. Let us take a look, for example, at the 1997/98 campaign, and focus up on the bottom tier. The five clubs that propped up the Football League were Swansea City, Cardiff City, Hull City, Brighton & Hove Albion and Doncaster Rovers. Manchester City and Stoke City had just been relegated to Division Two. They’ve all had quite decent seasons as it turns out.

And Wolves will rise again. Why? Because the club is too big not to, because, above all, it has history. That history pulled them out of the mire through the ‘80s and ‘90s when it was going catastrophically wrong and it will do so again. The financiers will tell you that you can’t find history on the balance sheet. Maybe not, but you can find it in the P&L account. When we all come back in August, look at the number of season tickets Wolves sell and the size of their crowd and those at Stevenage. Wolves’ numbers will be three or four times greater than theirs and why? Because of Billy Wright, Stan Cullis, John Richards, Derek Dougan, because they built the club, because supporters hope their like will come again. In the end, history will create a future for Wolves. And you can take that to the bank.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Black and white?

For something that has done more for racial integration and harmony in the United Kingdom than probably anything else, professional football is currently making an unholy mess of its position on the matter isn’t it?

First, just a little bit of historical context to underline football’s contribution. I’ll give you a bit of a timeline of a few events that have all happened in and around England’s second city, Birmingham.

1964: Smethwick, West Midlands: General election, Conservative candidate Peter Griffiths wins his Parliamentary seat by using the slogan “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour”.

1968: Birmingham, West Midlands: Enoch Powell makes his “Rivers of Blood” speech.

1976: Birmingham, West Midlands: Eric Clapton makes his “Enoch was right” declaration during a concert.

1978: West Bromwich, West Midlands: Black footballers Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham and Brendon Batson play together for West Bromwich Albion.

2014: West Bromwich, West Midlands: Celebration statue to be unveiled in the town centre featuring Cyrille Regis, Laurie Cunningham, Brendon Batson.

Now, to go from “If you want a nigger for a neighbour” to building a statue in honour of three black men just two miles down the road in 50 years, I think you would have to call that progress wouldn’t you? Much of it can be laid at the door of football, a sport which showed that integration was possible, that in the timeless phrase of Mr Paul McCartney and Mr Steven Wonder, ebony and ivory could, indeed, live together in perfect harmony, with, or without, a piano keyboard to do it on.

Football has, however, if not lost its way entirely, has an urgent need to shove fresh batteries into its SatNav. The various controversies that have involved the likes of John Terry and Luis Suarez have been well rehearsed here and elsewhere, symptomatic of what seems a disturbing complacency about the problem. Indeed, there are real concerns that we have take our eye off the ball in recent times and have forgotten just how pernicious racism can be, no least in times of economic turmoil when the idea of scapegoating on the basis of difference is at its most seductive.

We have seen the simple, explicit message of “Kick Racism Out Of Football” supplanted by the “One Game One Community” line that looks to confront all forms of discrimination under one blanket header. It is doubtless a laudable idea but by that scattergun approach, it has effectively diluted the potency of the head on war waged by the single issue campaign in the past. To many, we now seem to have a watered down approach that effectively addresses nothing.

You have to wonder if it is time for a change of gear now, not least in the wake of last Sunday’s PFA awards dinner where comedian Reginald D Hunter scandalised the watching audience by use of the word nigger. Perhaps that and some of his other material was ill judged, but the reflex responses to a black man using that word has exposed all kinds of other issues. All that has been reported is the word itself, not the context, not how it was meant. It’s unlikely that he used it with malice, with a hateful heart the way that a fascist would. Equally, as an American comedian, he uses it in a markedly different way to how it would be used – and received – in the UK.

However, he used that word and those who sit in judgement have that one at the very top of the list of words you cannot use, no way, no how. Once upon a time, that list was needed, particularly in the bleak days of the ‘70s and ‘80s when bananas rained down and monkey chants were heard at all our games.

But while we might think of racists as terminally stupid, hate is an infinitely subtle emotion, one that goes undercover only to break out in all kinds of new sly ways, one that subverts lists. Our lists of words that we must not use are now redundant because that battle has largely been won. Or, more accurately lost, because if we are going to mount a reflex attack on a black comedian for his use of that word, we truly have lost the plot.

Racism wasn’t sent into retreat simply by prohibiting words. It was won by standing up to the real thugs, by demanding that things got better, that chanting ended, that abuse ended. And now it is more insidious, I can promise you that it will not be won by well meaning white people who tie themselves in knots by trying to be PC. None of us can use the N word, I can’t type it without flinching, but what good does that do now in the fight against racism? Sod all really.

The time has come for a militant refusal to take this crap any longer, for an insistence on the imposition of the Rooney Rule – and not just in football, but in the boardrooms of the country too – and for white people to surrender their positions in these well meaning bodies to those who are on the receiving end of discrimination, who know what it is and who know what it isn’t.

What we don’t need is the PFA intoning that they will not pay a black man for the day’s work he did for them. Didn’t Abe Lincoln make that illegal?

Sunday, 14 October 2012

There Is A Light That Never Goes Out

We can start with the cliché, just to get it out of the way. You can change your husband / wife / significant other, you can change your religion, if you’re unscrupulous enough you can even change your politics. But you can’t change your football team. There, done it.

The oddity of it all, of course, is that everyone out there on the green on a Saturday afternoon has done just that. The objects of our affection, of our scorn sometimes, of our support, always the carriers of our dreams, have all been elsewhere and, in all probability, will all go elsewhere. All of them have changed their football team and yet all of them are, for these few fleeting months, years, unquestionably ours.
That peculiar paradox is at the heart of the game and our relationship with it as supporters, ever more so as the game evolves, as players get increasing freedom to move wherever they like, as the one club man becomes an increasing rarity, and who, with the eventual passing of Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard, will almost certainly become extinct.

As supporters in the stand, we cherish the idea that we bleed our colours, that our relationship with our club is unparalleled, unmatched. When the players scale the heights and give us a 4-0 win, or snatch an unlikely victory with the last kick of the game, they are Gods, they’ve tapped into our passion and used it to do the incredible. On those days when they slip to a 2-0 beating without ever looking in the game, they’re a bunch of worthless mercenaries, not fit to wear the shirt, only here for the pay cheque.
All of which goes some way to explaining the bizarre nature of football supporting. No, of course some young man passing through your club on his career path that started in Latvia, Brazil or Finland cannot begin to understand the traditions, the nuances, the subtleties of your club that has existed for a century and plenty. Of course he cannot feel it the way you do. Yet at the same time, he can feel it more, just for different reasons. Your football club might be your passion, but those results are his livelihood.

Yes, at the top end of the game, a player might only need one contract to secure him for life, but the number to whom that applies are comparatively small. Most footballers, even plenty of those in the Premier League, are operating on that knife edge where a run of good form will enable them to stay at the level they’re at, or even push higher, where an injury or a sudden loss of confidence will see them ending up in League Two or worse. So while a bad result will send us scurrying to the pub to seek solace – it’s not the worst idea, let’s face it – that same bad result might see a player having to change the size of roof over his and his family’s head, just as you do if the threat of redundancy suddenly rears its head at your place of work, whether you have any loyalty or finer feelings towards your employer or not. In such circumstances, I think it’s safe to say they care.
Which makes you wonder why it is that we are so obsessed with it all, those of us whose pay packets remain deeply untroubled by it all. It can only be because while our livelihoods survive, our lives are inextricably entwined with the fates and fortunes of our football team. And that is a whole different kettle of emotional and psychological fish.

Football is about as irrational as life gets and that’s why those people who haven’t grown up steeped in its mysteries can never truly understand it, cannot ever properly get inside it, enveloped by it, possessed by it. If we were talking logically, if any of it made sense, then we would all be supporters of the Manchester clubs, Arsenal, maybe Chelsea or Tottenham. By and large, those clubs play the most attractive football in the land, have the best players, score the most goals, win the most games. Why go anywhere else?
Much as it troubles those who believe that football didn’t exist before Paul Gascoigne burst into tears in Italy in 1990, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, “It’s the history, stupid”. And it’s a very complex history at that, because it isn’t merely the history of your club, the cups won, the victories gathered, the miseries suffered – especially the miseries suffered – it’s your history, you reading this. By what logical measure can you account for people living in Rochdale, but coming to The Hawthorns every other Saturday, driving past motorway exits that might take them to Old Trafford, the Etihad, Anfield or Goodison, if not for history, if not for the fact that previous generations came from West Bromwich and had the tribal mark of the throstle etched onto their soul before they left, calling them back week after week, dragging future generations, their sons and daughters to a town they know nothing about to watch footballers that represent it?

When we are here, it is an act of pilgrimage for the comparisons between football and religion are a lot closer than some think when they try to make a joke of it. When things are right, those momentary comings together when from out of nowhere, often for no particular reason, the whole crowd erupts at the same split second, starts singing the same song at the same time without anyone giving the lead, you can feel souls igniting all around the stadium, you can feel people getting in touch with some strange primeval force, making contact with some deep human need. On the occasions when The Hawthorns spontaneously takes on “The Lord’s My Shepherd”, you genuinely are on a different plane because you can see and hear people not just opening their mouths and sending out a tune, but singing for their lives, as if everything depended upon it. You don’t often get that outside a gospel choir.
Much as I love the old place, it is hard to see just why we would reach such a plane of ecstasy singing about West Bromwich if all we had to believe in was the Kings Centre, Dartmouth Park, a few pokey industrial estates and The Wheatsheaf in the High Street, though I bow to none in my appreciation of a pint in there after the match. But somehow, football captures all those elements, wraps them up in its arms and delivers it into the stadium each week where we can simultaneously forget and embrace all that life in this area has to offer.

Football was the game of the working classes and at its heart, so it remains, whatever the efforts to gentrify it. Like working class areas up and down the land, life here isn’t easy. If you grow up round here, you need to develop a thick skin and a hard edge because the number of blows that the world will bestow upon you are many and vicious. You might get passed over for work because you don’t have the right accent, the chances are that you’ll come out last in the postcode lotteries of health and education. Given the industries on which we depend, the likelihood is that somewhere along the line, The Man will come along and hang a closed sign on the door and take your job away from you. The industrial towns of this country are hard living, hard working, often hard drinking places. Life can be a grind, a worry, but there is always football, and that is where the game’s core constituency lies.
Because football transgresses all the normal rules. It is just about the only industry in the land that seems largely unaffected by the recession, crowds continuing to come in, TV deals getting bigger and bigger, the game forever hogging our back and front pages. And yet in that, there is a real disconnection because too often, the game itself, and certainly the Murdoch media that underpins it, wants to push football as entertainment, a wilful and potentially dangerous misunderstanding of its existence and its success.

Of course each of us has our different reasons for going to the game, but if you look across the broad sweep of football supporters, we do not come here to be entertained the way that we do if we go to the cinema or a concert or the theatre. We come here because we have to. We come here out of the fear that if we don’t, this will be the week when Chris Brunt scores a hat-trick, the week we score six, the week where after being under the cosh for 90 minutes, we break up the other end and, with one chance, win 1-0. Or it’ll be the week where the referee runs into the back post at a corner and knocks himself over, or when a dog runs on the pitch, or when the floodlights pack up for ten minutes, or it’s rained so much that a goalbound shot stops in a puddle on the line and gives Ben Foster the chance to get up and save it. Or the week when finally, a new Cyrille Regis or Tony Brown or Ray Barlow arrives on the scene from out of nowhere.
More likely, it’ll be another week where the game was a bit ordinary, nothing remarkable happened and you go home at the end of it thinking about your tea and hoping you don’t have to watch “Strictly Come Dancing” again. But the idea that it might happen, that this might be the game when you see something that you’ll be talking about for the next 10, 20, 50 years means that you have to come, on sufferance a lot of the time. You’d probably rather be of fishing, playing golf, sitting in front of the telly, but as the hour approaches, you know you’ve got to be here.

Because no football club worth its salt can ever exist in a vacuum. It is a part of its surroundings, it springs from its community, it is its community. Why else does AFC Wimbledon exist after the scandal of that club being uprooted was allowed to go through if not to give its community a focal point. Why does Portsmouth Football Club continue to exist in spite of repeated attempts to put it out of its misery by all kinds of unconcerned parties? It exists not because people in Portsmouth want to see a game of football every fortnight, but because those people need a place to go, they need a place of sanctuary, they need a space where they can commune with each other, they need somewhere to give them hope for the future and, most important perhaps, somewhere they can touch the spirits of the past, their past.
That is why football matters, why all over the country at unearthly hours of a Saturday morning there are people packing up their cars to make journeys the length and breadth of this country to go to games – home games mind you – simply because in doing so, they are paying their respects to those that have gone before as much as those with us now. They go and they look at that patch of the ground – doubtless long since redeveloped – where they stood as a nine year old, standing next to their dad, their uncles, mom, sisters, brothers, mates. They think of the walk back to the car, or getting the bus, they think of that New Year’s Day when all was ice and yet we still played Bristol City off the park, they think of the way the ground used to smell when it was the preserve of big men in big coats smoking cigarettes down to the wrist, not wasting a single drag, they think of that thrill you had when you didn’t know when the teams were coming out, when they ran out when they were ready, when you suddenly heard that little rumble of anticipation from those in the Rainbow Stand who were first to see players emerging from down the tunnel before the full throated roar of “Bring On The Champions” rolled around the ground, they think of how they had to wear the same clothes to every game when we were winning, of how they turned to their mate only 15 seconds into the first game of 1978/79 to joke, “Not much of a game, we haven’t scored yet!” only to find Ally Brown putting the ball in the net at that precise moment and then repeating that phrase game after game thereafter, they think of how it was to stand in packed grounds, wedged against a barrier as the rain poured down and the steam rose into the hair off a thousand soaking supporters all chanting, “Willie, Willie Johnston, Willie Johnston on the wing”. And then the spell is broken and they’re off again, “He comes from Africa, he’s better than Kaka, Mulumbu!” And in the seat in front, there’s a nine year old from this generation who is soaking it all up and who, come 2050, will be lost momentarily in his own reverie as he watches us play in whatever league it is then, thinking back to how lucky he was to have seen James Morrison and Jonas Olsson all those years ago, and how luckier still he was to have seen them with his family.

There is nothing, nothing on earth that does that to you the way that football does, for there is no shared experience like it, nowhere that combines the deeply personal and intimate with such a hugely public spectacle. Football can carry you through the darkest times you can imagine, times when the loss of those you once shared it with rips off the layers of your skin and leaves your very soul open, scarred, shattered. At those times, there is maybe nothing quite as painful as football, nothing that brings home the loss quite so savagely as the now empty seat or the post-match phone call that you can’t make any longer, or the Sunday afternoon re-enactment of events, the marvelling and the moaning. And then, time takes over and rounds off some of those jagged edges and coming back to this ground, to watch those blue and white stripes, becomes a pleasure once again, it offers comfort, it prods the memory down brighter avenues, it brings a smile and yes, sometimes a tear, but a better one. Show me a film, a television show, anything else that can do that for so many, many people.
This club, every club, allows us to stand on the shoulders of giants, on and off the field. We are here because our forefathers willed the game into existence, formulated it, supported it in good times and bad and created its ethos, its atmosphere. They delivered a sport that is not only breathtaking to watch, but they created what we now call “social media”, long, long before twitter and facebook ever reared their heads. If you think you’ve got a lot of friends on facebook, mostly people you know nothing about, have a look at the 20,000 friends you’ve got here this afternoon, friends who will help you sing your songs, help you enjoy your day, friends who will actively take part in your life, not just your status, for the next two hours, friends who will enrich it, friends who will make their mark on your memory and on your soul forever more, even if you have no idea who they are, what they do, what they look like.

Those that have gone before us created this game and you can find their thoughts, their hopes, their memories all around you if you just take a second to look. It’s embedded in every block of concrete, in every blade of grass, in every seat, in every note of every song, in every bead of sweat, in every bet, in every laugh, in every insult you hurl at a referee that you first heard shouted when you were a kid and couldn’t understand it, in every cup of tea that reminds you of far off days when all there was was a wooden tea hut with a teaspoon on a chain on the counter in case anybody nicked it. Other than your home, if you are one of the hopeless true believers like the rest of us, there is probably no place on earth as richly, tightly packed with memories as The Hawthorns, no activity that has so affected, afflicted your life as football, nothing that you are so desperate to pass down the chain and on to the next generations to see what they are going to do with it.
That is why, above any other considerations, we have to cherish football, protect it from those who would commodify it, who would make it a leisure choice like going to Alton Towers or Legoland. We must never let those that treat it as a plaything extinguish that flame.

Football, the game, the experience, the stuff of life, it exists for us to connect with a world that’s gone and the one that’s coming. It enlighten, enlivens, it bores, it frustrates, it gives us tiny moments of triumph along with long tracts of failure. Truly all human life is here, for football is the power, the glory, the misery, the humanity, the laughs and the loss, forever and ever. In the lives of so many of us, football is a light that never goes out.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

An apology for a newspaper and a human being

In today's Sun newspaper that covers the Hillsborough report, and that Sun headline of the time, Kelvin MacKenzie wrote: "I am sorry that it was so wrong. It has taken more than two decades, 400,000 documents and a two-year inquiry to discover to my horror that it would have been far more accurate had I written the headline The Lies rather than The Truth."

Actually, rather than 23 years, it would have taken 23 minutes in the company of someone who was there, or with a grieving family. You know, doing the job that newspapers are supposed to do, like checking the facts, taking a balanced view, coming to conclusions based on reality rather than prejudices, not simply taking the word of those with an agenda. Kelvin McKenzie never was fit for purpose, never will be and his pathetic apology 23 years too late is about as worthy a gesture as his lord and master's decision to close the NOTW just to make way for The Sunday Sun.

Instead of reporting what was blatantly obvious at the time, he and his newspaper chose to persecute Liverpudlians (loathed after Toxteth and because of the Derek Hatton council) and protect the South Yorkshire Police for services rendered during the miner's strike, rather than stand up for the rights of ordinary people. Thankfully, in the end, people truly do have the power to redeem the work of fools.

I have no idea if there is a heaven or a hell, but in the case of McKenzie and his puppet masters, I truly hope there is, and that he and his kind hang down there for all eternity, eyes forced open so they can watch again and again the suffering of those people that he and his newspaper raped in their darkest hour. You worthless, worthless bastard.

Friday, 17 August 2012

In defence of football

The Olympics is over and normality is restored with the return of football to our back pages and to our television screens.

It’s not before time because, as a follower of the beautiful game – said without irony you’ll note – I’ve grown a little tired of football being beaten over the head these last few weeks by those who think the Olympics represents some kind of high minded antidote to a sport that represents all that is evil.

With all due respect, garbage.

Let’s get the clarification out of the way before we start, just so nobody misconstrues the point. The achievements of Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis, Tom Daley, Ben Ainslie, Laura Trott, Victoria Pendleton et al have been immensely impressive, as has the way they’ve handled their successes, and what their success has told us about ourselves as a nation. The efforts put in by those who ended up last in their heats and who remain nameless to the public because we only care about winners, were equally huge, and equally gracious. The way in which they captured the imagination of huge numbers of people is unmatched by anything else in this country. Oh, except football – only the opening and closing ceremonies, and none of the actual events outstripped the 20.2 million who tuned in to watch England lose to Italy at the Euros.

All through the fortnight of the Olympics, we have been told to marvel at the numbers and the atmospheres. They have all been impressive, but unlike anything we’ve ever seen? Are you sure? The capacity of the Olympic Stadium is on a par with Old Trafford, which gets sold out throughout the season 20 or 30 times, while other grounds such as Anfield, the Emirates, White Hart Lane and the rest are bursting at the seams. And if you really haven’t felt an atmosphere like the Olympics, I suggest you pop along to St James’ Park some time. It might open your eyes. And scare a few of the horses.

The thing with the Olympics, especially one held in this country, is that like Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, it appeals to the unbelievers. You can be an atheist, an agnostic or just an apathetic all year round, but come Christmas, the pews are full of people who don’t know why they’re there but are happy to clap along. Same with the Olympics. The diving pool and the Velodrome packed with people who have no idea about what they’re witnessing but are just having a nice day out. Nothing at all wrong with that, especially if such interest persists. I have a sneaking suspicion though that when all the euphoria dies down, next year’s swimming galas, regattas and track meets will be greeted by “crowds” that contravene the Trades Descriptions Act as a term, but let’s see. God willing, there will be a legacy and the numbers will stay high.

But we are in dangerous waters because politicians of every stripe are circling, looking for an advantage by breathlessly repeating the phrase “legacy” – yes, you Boris, a man whose lifelong dedication to sport is clear from his lithe, muscular physique. And it seems that for many, the best way of trying to play up the Olympics is not by reference to the brilliance of what we’ve seen, but by juxtaposing it alongside a villain, an anti-Olympics, which is to say football. And all this despite the patron saint of the 2012 Olympics being David Beckham. Remind me, what sport does he play again?

It has been impossible to avoid those with precious little interest in sport telling us what a breath of fresh air the Olympics is and how horrible it will be to be confronted by those terrible Premiership footballers with their diving and their cheating and their complete lack of sporting instincts. As though there is no jockeying for position on the track, no gamesmanship as competitors wait to take to the ring, no ruthlessness among cyclists or divers when they engineer a restart or appeal against flash photography. Had Frank Lampard complained that he’d missed a penalty because of a flash going off in his eyes, he’d have been slammed as just another primadonna. Tom Daley says cameras put him off and it’s a legitimate gripe on his way to a medal. Which is right or wrong is neither here nor there, it’s all about perception.

It’s also all about the nature of competition. All of Team GB’s competitors stood at the start line with the absolute and unconditional backing of 99% of those looking on. Hoy, Farah, they were cheered to victory by crowds who were right behind them. Footballers go out onto the pitch to a hail of abuse from a very healthy chunk of the crowd, even at home. I’m not advocating it, but let’s see how a few runners or cyclists take it if they had 30,000 people questioning their legitimacy, their sexual preferences, or the current whereabouts of their spouse. Let’s see if that doesn’t give a different edge to their game, or put them off a bit.

It is also a very different game. The great bulk of sports at the Olympics are about individuals, where a person has only his or herself to worry about. Football is a team game where the overall choreography is crucial, your part just a piece of a bigger jigsaw, and where your failure to do it right doesn’t cost just you, it costs ten team mates. That can do strange things to the mind.

And, with all due respect to the assorted Commonwealth Games, world championships and the like that might pop up over the next four years in these various disciplines, most of us won’t pay any attention to them again until the 2016 Olympics. That means that the Olympians have the opportunity to channel all their efforts into peaking for two weeks out of 208. It’s an astonishingly difficult thing to do, nobody is underestimating that, but Scott Parker has to peak every 72 hours with, if he’s lucky, a total of 20 weeks off from competition in that same period. That’s pressure.

I’ll tell you what else is pressure. Any of you got any idea what, say, Ben Ainslie did for the last four years? No, me neither. Of course, he worked incredibly hard at his craft, subjected himself to exhausting training regimes, dedicated himself to winning another gold medal. But did any of you see him – or even think of him – since Beijing? Probably not.

Meanwhile, we all know exactly what Wayne Rooney did between the World Cups of 2006 and 2010. He played around 200 games of football, all of them in front of huge crowds, all of them games where titles, cups, rested on the outcome. And, on the days when he wasn’t playing, if he dared do so much as break wind, he was on the front page for committing an outrage. Ok, Rooney is no angel, but he’s not public enemy number one either – you’ve heard of bankers, right? However much money he’s getting paid, there’s no excuse for the constant intrusion into his private life. I’d be interested to see just how our Olympians handled that should they be unfortunate enough for it to come their way. Would none of them snap occasionally?

Part of that scrutiny comes from the national obsession with the young and wealthy, most of it from the national obsession with football. Football, not archery.  Even in the midst of the pre-Olympic hype, the expectations of the public for our athletes and competitors, two or three aside, were not huge. If Mo Farah had come away with two bronze medals, we’d have been happy, and rightly so. It would not have been failure, it would have been achievement. But if England don’t come home with the World Cup, having destroyed every nation on earth with dazzling dexterity, it’s a catastrophe. You would have to be superhuman for that not to weigh heavily on your shoulders every time you put on the three lions.

We would also do well to remember that there is another huge difference between professional sport and what, in a lot of cases, is not. Amateur sportsmen and women have to make massive sacrifices to achieve their goals and in that sense, what they do is even more extraordinary. But when you are a pro, when your livelihood depends on it, when your family is hanging on your monthly pay packet, everything takes on a different turn. Football is hugely competitive. Any first team footballer knows he’s a handful of games, or an injury, from being dropped, perhaps from being sold, from going down the divisions, from losing a hefty chunk of his salary. Even at your own club, in your own dressing room, there is somebody out to get you, to get your shirt, and that’s never mind what the opposition are going to do to you. In such a cutthroat line of work, it’s no wonder the boundaries get blurred, that you might like to bend a rule to get an advantage and keep your place in the team, especially if 50,000 people in that stadium, most of the even wearing your colours, will call you every name under the sun if you don’t.

If you’re guaranteed government funding for four years to train for an Olympics, the financial imperative is different. So is the moral one. You are taking taxpayer’s money, you in debt to the country – figuratively at least given that, unlike student tuition fees, we’re not asking athletes to pay their education fees back once they get to make a fortune on the celebrity endorsement circuit – you owe it to the nation to be a role model because the nation is paying at least some of your costs. As a footballer, while you have a similar obligation to the greater good of the game, your first loyalty is to the football club, because that pays your wages. And if your football club demands a win at all costs mentality naming no names, that’s what you have to do, just as athletes would if that was what we decided we wanted from the Olympics. The age old truth is that just like power, money corrupts. The Olympics has been largely free of the grubby economic realities down the years, but the more they creep in, the less savoury will be the behaviour.

Football is also a different sort of competition to most Olympic sports. There, you jump, you run, you row, you cycle, you lift, you throw, but you do it in isolation. You do your best and see if somebody hurls the javelin further than you do. That’s not football. Not only are you trying to do your best, you are doing it in direct opposition to somebody whose only job is to stop you doing yours, a bit like being a shot putter only to find there’s somebody standing in your turning circle. And where there is direct physical confrontation, there is bound to be friction. That is also part of the game and something to relish too, even if it is all too much for the delicate sensibilities of some.

Footballers get a bad press for their aggression – but for those of us who love the sport, that is a key component of it. Equally, in the overwhelmingly huge majority of cases, at the final whistle, all those enmities are forgotten and players shake hands, exchange shirts and jokes as they go off, leaving the field with just as much sportsmanship as an Olympian. For every Joey Barton style incident, there are thousands of good, honest pros behaving as perfectly good role models.

It is, after all, a question of numbers. There are somewhere between two and three thousand senior professional footballers at the top level in England, given the 92 clubs employ squads of around 25. Those numbers encompass all kinds of personalities, so the odd bad apple is pretty much inevitable, isn’t it? And you have to look at the demographics too, politically incorrect as that may be. A sizeable chunk of footballers come from relatively poor backgrounds, from challenging family circumstances, from not always friendly environments. Few went to public school or were schooled in the intricacies of dressage. Rather than being castigated, perhaps football should be praised for its inclusivity, regardless of race or class, its ability to give great life chances to those who might otherwise miss out on them, something a few of those Olympic sports are rather less successful at.

On a similar front, the Football in the Community concept has done extraordinarily valuable work for decades now, the nation’s football clubs going out into the communities in which they are rooted and bringing sport, education, cultural opportunities to people, often the young, who would otherwise go without such chances. This involves not only a large number of dedicated staff working long hours in the service of these programmes, but also features players going out to local schools, community centres and the like, talking to the kids, acting as role medals. In that way, football is creating an inspirational legacy every week of every year, not once every four. And unlike all those other sports we’ve been watching, football doesn’t take government money. It invests its own in the community. I think as supporters, we can be proud of that.

In the end, what’s happening is that those who don’t know much about sport are trying to crowbar the rest of us into factions, into sects, by attacking football as they boost running or rowing. And once they’ve done that, they’ll turn on something else, until all the playing fields have gone. Those of us who get it know that all sport is a huge force for good, physically, mentally, emotionally. Let’s not let be divisive about them.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The Great Ones - The Stone Roses


The Stone Roses reunion hoopla is pretty much over, for the time being at least. A handful of festival dates remain to be played and then we wait to see if the beast still lives thereafter.

The gigs they’ve played have left a legacy that pretty much explains just why there is nothing quite like music to touch the soul and either ignite it or leave it stone cold. Those that went offer war stories of blessed out evenings, wandering down memory lane while simultaneously being thrilled by a band supposedly on fine form. Those who have only caught clips on youtube can only marvel at the never ending capacity of Ian Brown to fail to find a tune, even with the help of a SatNav.

I passed on the Roses this time, partly because the open air gig does nothing for me at my rapidly advancing age, mainly because I wanted to leave my memories of them intact.

I was one of the lucky ones you see. On May 12, 1989, I saw them before the hype took over, in a tiny club, standing about twice as far from John Squire as you are from the screen you’re reading this on. The debut album was a couple of weeks old, “She Bangs The Drums” was still awaiting release as a single. They were getting attention, people were talking about them, but they were still a phenomenon waiting to happen.

There are plenty of bands who I listen to more often than them, bands who I’ve seen in the flesh more often, but even now, 23 years now, that gig remains one of my cornerstone musical moments. I doubt that Brown sang any better then than he does now, as a band they were possibly less accomplished than they are today after 20 years at their craft, but in that spit and vomit club with sweat dripping off the ceiling, there was no doubting that this was something incredibly special, that it was about to go over ground, that nothing could stop the Stone Roses. Except, perhaps, themselves.

The following day, I got up early and went and bought the album on cassette. I rarely did that, but I was driving somewhere and I wanted – needed - to hear that record and hear it immediately, an emotion that has only rarely been repeated since then. It didn’t disappoint then, and it hasn’t since. It is a genuinely extraordinary piece of work, not necessarily in songwriting terms although some of it is sublime, but in the creation of a sound, an atmosphere. Like all great bands, they created a place where they and their music existed, separate from the competition, however good their contemporaries like the Mondays might have been. Madchester might have embraced them both, and plenty of others, but the Roses were always apart from it, because they were the special ones.

Not only were they good, very good, they had an inherent understanding of how important it is to create an aura, a mystique, a magic. They were ubiquitous for a spell in 1990, but even then, they kept a lid on it. We didn't know everything therewas to know about them in mind numbing social media styled detail. We got fed fascinating snippets that left us wanting more, then the BBC Late SAhow fiasco and the paint job at Revolver which followed the bad boy blueprint of the likes of the Stones, upped the ante still further. But they were more than that.

They penned songs with titles like “What The World Is Waiting For” and “I Am The Resurrection”, when Brown spoke to the press on increasingly rare occasions,  it was to tell them that his band was the most important in the world, and they moved from clubs to events, Blackpool, Ally Pally, Spike Island, Glasgow Green. Above all, they had the music to back it up, but only together. There was something about that foursome, like Morrisssey, Marr, Joyce and Rourke, that just worked to perfection, a blessing that they later took for granted as the band fragmented.

But for those 12 months, they were the greatest game in town and, had they called it quits before the trials and tribulations of “The Second Coming”, they would be in the pantheon, but the gradual unravelling tarnished the golden days.

And that’s why I didn’t go this time and haven’t experienced a single pang of regret. In my mind, they are still that group from 1989, and that puts them up there with the very, very best. That’s the way I’m keeping it.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

The Great Ones - Zinedine Zidane

“Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait” is a pretty remarkable piece of film making. If your staple diet of all things cinematic comes via the crash, bang, wallop of the multiplex, then the stately pace, the incremental placing of barely changing layer upon layer as the film crawls by is going to take some adapting to. But it’s worth the effort. If this were an album by Coltrane, it would have been termed “A Meditation”, and maybe that’s the best way to think about it.

It’s a Zen thing, gradually building in significance to build a portrait that’s compelling, that has real depth, yet never pretends to unveil the man behind the implacable mask, the heavy set brows, the piercing stare. It could only be a French movie, about a French icon and vive le difference because, as one critic put it at the time, this might just be the greatest film about football ever made.

The premise is that the camera follows Zidane about the pitch throughout a single game in La Liga, back in 2005. It doesn’t follow the game, it follows Zidane, so in that sense, it’s very much like being a scout sent along to compile a report on an individual and for a fan, that in itself is intriguing.

But this isn’t a study of a promising 17 year old at Brechin City that might cost you £25,000. This is the man who was probably the greatest player in the world from 1998 to 2006, the man who would cost you untold millions if you could have got him away from the galacticos.

That prospect in itself seems thrilling enough to me. I remember really becoming aware, fascinated, absorbed by Zidane at the ’98 World Cup. In game after game, time after time, he always played the right pass, be it easy or complex.

When you watch on TV or from high in the stands, with the glorious sweep of a view, all the options are before you and it’s easy to see what the best option is. On the field, amid the noise, the bodies, the confusion, it’s a very different task. But Zidane’s selection of pass was extraordinary, at a higher level than any footballer I’d ever seen, way up there in the 90%s.

To see that at close quarters seems a rare treat, yet initially, it’s a disappointment, partly because you get sucked into the technicalities. As a British fan, it seems unimaginable that such a great player is given so much space, that he isn’t man marked into the ground. And, again as a British fan, it seems incomprehensible that the man himself barely moves.

There’s no running into space, certainly no tracking back, just a vague hanging around like a bloke at a bus terminal who isn’t quite sure which service it is that he needs. There are a lot of close ups, plenty of shots of him looking vaguely disappointed with what’s going on around him, but no fire, precious little brimstone. The most incendiary moment comes when Madrid concede a controversial penalty and, after it’s successfully converted and the teams are lining up again, Zidane says quietly to the ref, “You should be ashamed”.

The languid pace, soundtracked superbly by Mogwai – that rare event where the soundtrack album is worth getting on its own merits – continues to the interval where a world of other events from that day in April 2005 is catalogued, taking us to a bomb blast in Iraq where stood on the periphery is a young boy in a Real Madrid shirt with 5 – Zidane on the back. The global game indeed.

A goal behind, any side in England would come out for the second half as explosively as that scene in Iraq, but not Real. The tempo barely shifts and an hour in, the filmmakers must have been rather concerned about whether or not they’d picked a dud.

Zidane continues to slouch about the field, but suddenly, the pace makes sense. You come to recognise the mannerisms, you understand that he is on edge. That strange scratching motion as he walks, dragging the front of his foot on the turf like a barnyard chicken, shuffling, scuffling.

And then, the punchline. A ball finds him on the left. A lovely moment of control, a little change of pace, lightning feet and he’s beyond three defenders and, trusting the left foot he rarely uses except in extremis, he curls a cross to the back post where Ronaldo has a tap-in header to equalise.

From there, he’s not galvanised. He’s magnetised. The ball won’t stop finding him and his use of it is immaculate. A moment where he kills it stone dead and turns is like watching Canute turning the tide back, the geometrics of it are impossible but captivating. This is a man who sees the game in high definition slow motion as it rages around him, somebody with an analytical brain that creates 3D computer models from a bird’s eye view, allowing him to select the right option time and again.

Now it’s payback on the slow build up. Gone is the shambling walk, the uncertainty. Now the stride is purposeful, confident, the game in his hands, his head, his feet. He played no part in the second goal, if he’d covered more than a couple of kilometres in the whole game it would be a shock, but it was Zidane that won it.

Finally, the luck of the moviemaker, who got the right day after all. Madrid almost concede an equaliser from a corner late on, Zidane and Roberto Carlos walking away from it, laughing and joking, knowing they’ve escaped, the game’s won. Those smiles are genuine, the camaraderie heartfelt, and in that instant, you see why players never want to hang up their boots.

And then, the rage that bubbles beneath the surface.

A bad tackle on a colleague and Zidane is sprinting faster than at any time in the game, pushing and pulling, collecting the red card that gives the film its finale, a finale that, in the light of the World Cup Final that followed a year later, somehow encapsulates the magician that was Zizou. As the man himself says, via subtitles during the action, “Sometimes magic is close to nothing at all. Nothing at all”.